Palestinians mourn loss of 'icon' Saeb Erekat

Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –

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Palestinians on Wednesday mourned their veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat, who died aged 65 of coronavirus complications, amid cautious hope the stalled peace process with Israel may be revived under Joe Biden's presidency.

Erekat, who died Tuesday at Jerusalem's Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital, earned praise from leaders around the world for his enduring belief that negotiations could end the Middle East conflict and lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who praised Erekat as a "great fighter" for his people, hosted an official memorial ceremony at his presidential compound in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Erekat was a lung transplant recipient who suffered from pulmonary fibrosis. After contracting the novel coronavirus, his prospects for recovery were dim given his history of respiratory illness.

Following the sombre military ceremony attended by top officials of the Palestinian Authority, Erekat's body was transported to his home city of Jericho, where he is to be buried.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki described Erekat as "an icon of the Palestinian cause".

"He was a diplomat in every sense of the word," Maliki told Palestine TV.

Erekat was part of nearly every major peace negotiation with Israel and was respected by many in the Jewish state for his commitment to a peaceful, two-state solution.

Neither Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nor President Reuven Rivlin offered public condolences following Erekat's death.

- End of an era -

In his later years, Erekat watched despairingly as the two-state solution he had long championed faced mounting obstacles.

Those included the collapse of peace partners on the Israeli left as the country lurched to the right under Netanyahu and persistent Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

Israelis point to Palestinian violence, divisions and lack of political will as main obstacles to negotiations.

The head of the International Crisis Group think tank, said: "Erekat's death marks the end of an era.

"An era in which Israelis and Palestinians sought to negotiate a peaceful solution to their conflict. He embodied that era, with all its hope and all its frustrations."

- Hope with Biden? -

The floundering peace process was further set back by the election of US President Donald Trump, reviled by Palestinians for his bias towards Israel.

Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's "undivided capital", an existential blow to the Palestinians, who claim the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state.

Trump also broke with decades of US practice by not criticising Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.

By the time of Erekat's death, relations between Washington and the Palestinian Authority had effectively collapsed.

Trump's controversial Middle East plan, drafted with no Palestinian input, was categorically rejected by Ramallah.

But Palestinian analyst Nour Odeh told AFP that up to his death Erekat "was always hopeful, always believed (peace) is achievable".

"He was tireless, he was stubborn... He believed that this conflict will end and that this occupation will end," she said.

Odeh said that "like all Palestinians" Erekat "would have rejoiced in the fact Donald Trump will be out of the White House".

"Joe Biden is not Donald Trump so we expect sanity in the White House, civility, more balance," she said, adding that there was "measured optimism" among Palestinians about the prospects for cooperation with the Biden administration.

Commenting on Erekat's death, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: "Now is the time to continue his crucial work," by renewing negotiations towards a "just and sustainable two-state solution".